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LeBron At 30

As the new season gets underway, all eyes in the NBA are on LeBron James and his new team, just as they were four years ago. The 14-15 Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot in common with the 10-11 Miami Heat, from the massive spotlight they are playing under to a head coach without a lot of NBA experience and three star players learning to play together. The biggest difference between the two teams is their best player, who had to do a lot of growing up in the last four years.

LeBron James at 26 might have been the most impressive athlete in the history of the sport. He was a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who was bigger than the big men and faster than the guards. He was a seemingly indestructible basketball cyborg who could play all 48 minutes without any visible sign of wear and tear. Like most young guys, he thought he was invincible. Miami’s collapse in the 2011 NBA Finals humbled him and made him a better player.

LeBron at 30 isn’t quite the athlete he once was. He can’t play as many minutes and he can’t go as hard on both ends as he used too. He can still turn on the athleticism when necessary, but he doesn’t do it as often. It’s like an older sports car - you can still take it into high gear, but you probably don’t want to wear out the engine revving it through downtown traffic. What he’s lost in athletic ability, though, he has more than made up for in his grasp of the game.

If LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland was Young LeBron, what he was doing by the end of his time in Miami was Peak LeBron. The offensive efficiency numbers speak for themselves. LeBron averaged 29 points per game on 50% shooting in his last season with the Cavs - he was at 27 points on 57% shooting in his last season with the Heat. He became comfortable scoring out of the post and he turned himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.

Where you really saw that was in the playoffs, where he was able to score at will regardless of who he was playing against. Before last season, LeBron had never shot above 51% in the postseason. It makes sense - the game slows down and you are facing much better defenses with much bigger and more athletic defenders. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 56% from the field. Those are prime Shaq numbers and Shaq spent the whole game dunking on people.

That LeBron is able to score at that volume and efficiency while taking shots from all over the floor shows you how easy the game comes to him. In their first year with Miami, everything looked really difficult for the Heat. They had a hard time getting out of each other’s way on offense and they didn’t function all that well as a unit. LeBron at 30 is unlikely to have the same types of issues in Cleveland - he doesn’t make the game any harder on himself than it has to be.

When LeBron has the ball in his hands, he almost always makes the right decision. If the defense plays off him, he shoots. If they press up on him, he drives. If they send help, he finds the open man. He takes what the defense gives him and he doesn’t force the issue. If basketball is an equation, he has essentially solved it. As long as he can play in space, LeBron is one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA - the defense has to give up something.

The big difference for him in Cleveland is that he will have more support on the offensive side of the ball.

Kevin Love is a better three-point shooter than Chris Bosh and he gives them another dimension on the offensive glass, while Kyrie Irving won’t have to sit out games and have his minutes cut like Dwyane Wade. Part of the problem in Miami was that LeBron was using up so much energy trying to carry them on the offensive end of the floor, he had to take off possessions on defense.

By the end of the Spurs five-game rout of the Heat, LeBron just seemed worn out - Wade could no longer dominate on one knee, Bosh had been completely de-emphasized in the offense and none of the role players could do much of anything. Everyone needed LeBron to spoon feed them open shots. The Cavs, in contrast, have more guys on their roster - Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson - who know how to find their way into points.

If LeBron is able to ration his energy more effectively in the regular season, that could pay dividends in the playoffs. A couple of times in the 2014 NBA Finals, he reached into the tank and came out empty, most notably when he cramped up at the end of Game 1. That might not have happened were it not for an air conditioning malfunction in San Antonio, but it clearly had an effect on how he trained in the offseason, as he is at his lowest weight in years.

Dropping weight and playing with teammates who can carry the offense and allow him to take a step back are two of the biggest reasons for Tim Duncan’s amazing longevity in the NBA. The older a player gets, the harder it becomes for them to carry any extra pounds on their knees and the more susceptible they become to injuries. Injuries, not any significant decline in play, are what usually ends the careers of the greatest players, from Shaq to Kobe Bryant. 

Great players don’t age like basketball mortals. As they get older, they can adjust their game and remain effective, compensating for any loss in physical ability with a corresponding gain in mental ability. That’s the biggest difference between LeBron at 26 and LeBron at 30 - he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.

LeBron’s game has changed a lot over the last four seasons and he will have to continue to reinvent himself to stay atop the NBA for the next four, if not longer. If his time in Miami was like Jordan’s first three-peat in Chicago, his second stint in Cleveland will have to be like the second. We are witnessing one of the greatest players of all-time at the peak of his powers. As the next stage of his career begins, everything is on the table, both for him and the Cavs.

Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

While we are still about a few weeks away from regular season NBA basketball, it seems like a fair time to start thinking about the teams and storylines that could dominate the landscape for the upcoming season. After years of writing the Non-National Games of the Week column for RealGM, I have a sense of what teams will be on my NNGW radar to start the year. My non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

While I have removed teams with heavy national profiles from consideration for this column in other years, I made every team eligible this season and none of the chosen six play even thirty games on ESPN/ABC, TNT and NBATV.

Honorable Mention. Philadelphia 76ers: They will be absolutely terrible but Nerlens Noel made enough plays in Summer League to make Philly the early leader for my first quarter Eastern Time Zone team.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves: Unlike the Sixers, most of Minnesota’s fun young players should get at least some playing time this season and the team should be somewhat competitive. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng have larger roles to play, but both Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine should get enough burn to make the Wolves worth paying attention to. Plus, any team with Ricky Rubio gets my attention, at least for now.

4. Phoenix Suns: The Suns came out of nowhere and ended up being my favorite League Pass team on the aggregate last season. They were fun to watch and played games of importance despite eventually missing the playoffs. While there are numerous factors which may lead to a more deflating campaign, Jeff Hornacek’s squad deserves this spot based on their large overall continuity.

3. Golden State Warriors: After deciding to keep their roster largely together despite some compelling offers that I am still not over, the Warriors did change their head coach and should have a much more effective and engaging offense to show for it. I also hope we get to see more of Draymond Green playing with Stephen Curry as well as a potential rejuvenation for Harrison Barnes after a wholly disappointing sophomore season.

2. New Orleans Pelicans: An absolutely huge test year for Anthony Davis. The Brow got muscle behind him in the form of one of the best defensive Centers in the entire league in Omer Asik. The full-strength Pelicans will be intensely fun to watch and give us a much better idea of what the next few seasons in New Orleans will look like. Plus, the three-headed PF/C monster of Davis, Asik, and Ryan Anderson causes matchup problems in each iteration and we may also see some minutes with all three sharing the court, which could lead to my favorite potential situation of the entire 14-15 season: Anthony Davis guarding Small Forwards. If Monty Williams puts Davis on Kevin Durant for 5+ minutes during some game, it would be must-see TV for basketball fans.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Amazingly, the Cavs get the #1 spot on this list for a second year in a row. Let’s hope it turns out better for them this time around. This year’s Cavaliers are the great experiment of this NBA season because their three best players were all better offensively than defensively last year and their only true rim protector on the roster has quite the injury history. Add in the intrigue relating to who starts at shooting guard and figuring out the SF/PF rotation and you have a team worth watching in both big and small moments.

Cleveland's Blind Spot: Contenders Without A Top-10 Defense

The Cavaliers will have no trouble scoring at an efficient rate with offensive talents like LeBron, Love and Kyrie sharing the floor. The real question is how good will the Cavaliers be on defense, particularly their interior defense?

Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players.

LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

The end game for LeBron James is not to bring one title to Cleveland, but to bring a franchise that could compete for titles well into the future. When LeBron watched the Spurs dismantle the Heat in the Finals, he saw what to strive for.

The Human Element

The best players in the sport have transitioned from supermen to businessmen to being a business, man, at the same time the league as a whole transitioned from family owned teams to major enterprises. Like it or not, this NBA should be around for a long, long time.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

On Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland's Favorite Son

Zydrunas Ilgauskas choosing to live in Cleveland in retirement is why nobody questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. Heís the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument.

Why It's Too Early To Write Off Anthony Bennett

Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Fix It: Cleveland Cavaliers

While the Cavaliers may lose a lot of games again this year, it is not for lack of trying, as they have paired their high draft selections with quality free agents in order to propel themselves toward the playoffs. They may not make it this year, but this teamís time is coming.

C.J. Miles Enjoying Shooting Role On Young Cavaliers

C.J. Miles is off to the best start of his career, averaging over 13 points and supplying Mike Brown with a potent shooter to surround Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers held an option on the final year of Milesí deal this season, but exercising it was a formality and heís cozied into playing part in the teamís core.

The Marquee Non-National Teams To Watch

While there are no direct criteria, my non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

Cavaliers' 2014 Salary Cap Outlook

This season should provide the Cavaliers with plenty of opportunities to analyze the talent they have on roster, which will be necessary since they will need to make some tough calls if they want to preserve enough cap space to sign LeBron James outright.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

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